WASHINGTON : The Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is on the defensive and “their cause is lost,” US President Barack Obama said Wednesday after meeting with CIA chiefs and other security officials.

Obama paid a rare visit to CIA headquarters in Virginia to discuss progress of Operation Inherent Resolve, the 20-month-old US-led campaign against IS militants in Iraq and Syria. “ISIL is on the defensive, and we are on the offensive,” Obama said, using an IS acronym. “We have momentum, and we intend to keep that momentum.” Obama pointed to recent US air strikes that killed three senior IS leaders and a report this week showing the group’s ranks are at their lowest level since 2014.

“In the days and weeks ahead we intend to take out more (leaders.) Every day, ISIL leaders wake up and understand it could be their last,” Obama said. “Their ranks of fighters are estimated to be at the lowest levels in two years and more and more are realizing that their cause is lost,” he added.

Obama stressed the importance of ending the five-year civil war in Syria as key to facilitating a lasting defeat of the IS group. “So we continue to work for a diplomatic end to this awful conflict,” he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Baghdad-based spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the US-led coalition campaign had successfully entered the second “phase” of operations.

The coalition is working through three main steps as it wages its 20-month-old fight against the IS group, Warren said.

“Our enemy has been weakened and we now are working to fracture him. Phase one of the military campaign is complete,” Warren told Pentagon reporters, noting that this initial step was to “degrade” the IS group by stopping it from making additional territorial gains.

“We are now in phase two, which is to dismantle this enemy,” he added.

Warren said the final phase of the campaign is to ensure the IS group is dealt a lasting defeat, primarily by enabling local forces to prevent a resurgence of militant influence.

Though the IS group maintains a firm grip on vast areas of the two countries, the militants have suffered some serious setbacks including the loss of Ramadi in Iraq.

“While ISIL can still put together some complex attacks, they have not been able to take hold of any key terrain for almost a year now,” Warren said.

Meanwhile,the United States has carried out 70 to 80 air strikes against Islamic State in Afghanistan in the three months since US forces were given broader authority to target the militants, a US military spokesman said on Thursday.

Before January, the US military could only strike Islamic State in Afghanistan under narrow circumstances, such as for protection of troops.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland said the air strikes had decreased the capacity of the group in Afghanistan, where fighters loyal to Islamic State have emerged to challenge the larger Afghan Taliban in pockets of the country.

Cleveland said about 70 to 80 percent of the air strikes between January and the end of March were in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

“The capacity of Daesh, we believe has been lessened and their overall footprint in Nangarhar, we do believe, has been lessened as well,” Cleveland said. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The US military has previously said there are between 1,000 and 3,000 Islamic State members in Afghanistan. Cleveland said that number was now probably closer to the lower estimate.

He said the group controlled about six to eight districts a few months ago, but that number was now closer to two to three districts.

“We do think that they still pose a potential real threat and again just based on their past performance, they have got the ability to catch fire very quickly,” Cleveland said.

He also said that the southern province of Helmand was not on the verge of falling into the hands of the Taliban, but it was a “difficult, contested area.” In February, Afghan forces pulled out of some parts of the province after months of heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents.

Helmand, a mainly desert region bordering Pakistan, is of strategic and symbolic importance as a heartland of the Taliban. The province sits along major smuggling routes for drugs and weapons. It accounts for the biggest share of opium cultivation, a principal source of revenue for the Taliban.

More American and British troops died in Helmand than in any other province of Afghanistan since arriving after the fall of Taliban rulers in late 2001. The United States and its allies invaded following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.